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In the twenty-first century, what we both formally and informally assume is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ literature is often, and conveniently assumed to be what is either canonized or non-canonized respectively. The literary canon refers to a highly valued body of literature, thought of as being the most influential and important of a specific era or place. Canons provide the measure of what is considered valuable in a field; they are often perceived as having moral and ethical force and so are used for instruction and in this way provides us with a ‘standard’ to which we evaluate new and old literature alike. However, it is not always clear what characteristics we ascribe to canonised texts and what we gauge to be important or not. Herein lies the conflict between those who support the literary canon as it currently formulated and those who believe it represents nothing but an ideological construction that undermines liberal values and protects conservative hegemony. Within this essay I will evaluate the literary canon in light of these two theories and conclude that while the concept of a canonised body of literature is important, it appears to need redefining as it purports a conservative ideological hegemony. I will discuss ways in which critical approaches have challenged the notions of value and taste, and with it the notion of the canon while also providing important historical and sociological contexts that will help place the discussion within a framework surrounding the concept of the literary canon as well as the core principles that underlie the questions of genuine objectivity, aesthetic value and taste.
Before we begin to assess the arguments for or against the literary canon as an ideological construction it is important to really define what we mean by the term. Within this essay, the term ‘literary canon’ will refer to predominantly western canonical tradition and literature (poems, novels, etc.) that are often considered to be part of this tradition. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the literary canon as “an authoritative list, as of the works of an author” and “a basis for judgment; a standard; or criterion”, and as such it invokes a certain prestige and accessibility to public consumption (AHD). Authors who have such status include William Shakespeare, John Milton, Walt Whitman and William Wordsworth. The central debate here regarding the canon concerns the overwhelming position held by white male and bourgeois authors in comparison with women, non-white, and working-class authors of the ‘same’ talent. Central philosophers and literary critics who argue that the cannon need not be revised might disagree with this use of ‘same’ and maintain the works present in the literary canon uphold certain objective value that other authors texts do not; and in my best effort to present an unbiased formulation of the conflict I have scare quoted this use of ‘same’. In contrast, since the 1960’s most predominantly, liberal studies have argued that the literary canon is innately biased since the traditional focus of academic studies have been of white bourgeois men. Willie Van Peer comments that “if… two works of literature deal with the same subject matter (and are also similar in other respects), the one that reflects and reinforces prevailing ideologies of dominant groups most closely will have more chances of ending up in the canon than the one that expresses criticism of such ideologies” (Van Peer, ‘Canon Formation: Ideology or Aesthetic Quality?’). There are female authors included in the traditional formulation of the canon such as Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, however these authors tend to share the same era both of inclusion within the canon as well as era of writing. All three of the authors mentioned above had their most prominent texts published in the 1800’s and were included in the canon sometime during the 20th century when they began to become subjects of academic study across Western Universities. Prior to 20th century female authorship was almost non-existent especially within academic circles of literary criticism.
The idea of a literary canon is hugely controversial which I have demonstrated above. Most fundamentally there are two broad kinds of explanations as to how works of literature become canonized:
(1) The ideological explanation;
(2) The Aesthetic explanation.
These two explanations can be thought of as representing two sides of the argument surrounding the literary canon and its need for revision. The ideological explanation suggests that whether a work of literature becomes canonized has nothing to do with its artistic or aesthetic value nor its ability to be appreciated or provide pleasure. Instead of maintaining these qualities, what enables a work to become canonized is its defence or propagation of ideological views (most often thought of as being those held by male bourgeoise critics in authority). Barbara Henstein Smith is an advocate of the ideological view and comments that “those with cultural power tend to be members of socially, economically, and politically established classes (or to serve them and identify their own interests with theirs), the texts that survive will tend to be those that appear to reflect and reinforce establishment ideologies. (B Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value). Opposingly, the aesthetic explanation maintains that what qualifies a work to be included in the literary canon is its purely aesthetic value. Harold Bloom comments that the “aesthetic choice has always guided every secular aspect of canon formation” (Harold Bloom, The Western Canon). In order to assess the critical approaches to the literary canon we ought to begin by questioning the notion of ‘value’.
Understanding value is vital to the larger argument and there are two forms it can take, objective value or subjective value. There is a key difference between the objective or seemingly universal values and qualities of a work of literature and the subjective appreciation or interpretation of it. It seems that there should be more to value in the arts than just the matter of individual personal preferences and it is often a question that needs to be answered as to whether there are any objective values a work of art or literature ought to have in order for it to be considered canonical. There should be more to the value of literature and art than just an individual saying that she likes or dislikes something and in this way the notion of objectivity is contentious. The distinction between objective and subjective has some sort of cue here because objective judgement has something to do with the properties of an object and subjective has something to do with the properties of the subject. While this might seem apparent, the idea of an objective judgement will arise out of a certain conception of what literature is. If you want to make an objective judgement you make it in light of how you conceive of literature. An objective judgment you might make about a work of literature would require specification, I will discuss this further later in this essay. While we have objective values, it is important to distinguish them from the subjective values. The subjective itself needs to be distinguished between two senses. The first is response dependent. In this case, the subjective value is dependent on the responses of subjects i.e. the responses of people who are interested in a certain literary work. In this way the value of literature must be response dependent because works of literature don’t have values independently of people responding to them and appreciating them. Without anyone to respond or appreciate a literary work it would have no value whatsoever. However, we should not conflate response dependence with personal preference subjectivity. Personal preference subjectivity is the second we must distinguish, one might make subjective judgements that only apply to me. These often have to do with personal experiences and their relations to the present. For example, I know I like chocolate and therefore when introduced to a new chocolate bar I try it excitedly. I tell everyone how great the sweet treat is, but it has absolutely no bearing upon the chocolate bars value. Me finding the chocolate bar good is an example of personal preference subjectivity and is vitally different from its subjective response dependent value. In David Hume’s ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ he writes about developing a subjective theory of literary value in the response dependent sense. Hume wants to resist the idea that all subjective means is personal preferences. According to Hume, personal preferences have a proper place, but he wants to make a case for something beyond that which he calls ‘a standard of taste’. It is this standard of taste that is central to understanding values in works of literature.
In understanding a standard of taste, we must always ask of any value judgement, what it is that we are valuing the subject as. When evaluating literature, it will be different from evaluating philosophy or history or any other academic discipline. It will also be different across certain genres or types of literature. One might require a different set of tools for evaluating a fictional novel and a romantic poem for example. When we make value judgements about literature we must qualify them and this is notably hard to accomplish when evaluating works of literature. Literature is not just evaluated under the pretence of fine writing or including within it, formalist definitions or romantic expressions. You can make something like an objective judgement relative to each of these conceptions of literature if you’re interested in defining literature as expressing this quality, perhaps as the romantics did. It might be that disagreements about literary judgements are not disagreements in the judgements themselves but disagreements about the conception of literature under which the judgements are being made. People disagree over the definition of literature and very often relativized to a conception of literature, judgements can be reasonably secure because you test the judgements against the criteria building to the conception of literature that you are dealing with. The idea of literature as works of art and the idea of being a work of art builds in certain criteria, this might be aesthetic criteria for example as propagated by Harold Bloom. When you use this formulation in your judgements they tend to be significantly less controversial because you have criteria in place for supporting your judgement. When you ask whether a text is a good piece of literature it therefore becomes important to ascertain what conception of literature you are thinking of. One might argue that Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is a good work of literature but on its own this holds little to no merit. If one were instead to argue that Pride and Prejudice is a good work of romantic literature, it would entail certain qualities we understand as being pivotal in the conception of romantic literature and thus hold more merit. It would even allow us to compare certain works of literature with those pertaining to the same discipline or conception and containing within its similar tropes or identifying information.
However, simply ascertaining what conception of literature one considers a text belongs to when considering judgements on it might not be enough to justify it as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ nor might it allow us to ascribe any particular value to it. Instead it often becomes a perennial task to contrast judgements of work at a very specific level where you are interested in specific features of work. For example, the aptness of an image in a poem; the coherence of a scene in a play; or the predictability of a plot in a novel where these play a central part to the quality of the poem, play and novel respectively. These are judgements that we make all the time about specific details within literature and art on a much broader scale. These judgements have to be qualified in a similar way to our judgments about the goodness of Pride and Prejudice as a romantic novel. In order to make a judgement about a specific detail in a work you have to be able to place that detail within some scheme of significance. It is only relative to the significance you are giving to the detail that you can make a judgement about its effectiveness or value. Its not just something about an image in a poem and how effective it is as an image, it is much more the case that ‘we have this image in the poem but what is it doing in the poem – what significance does it have in relation to the poem?’. It is only relative to this, that we can ask how effective it is or how valuable it is as a detail. The point of specificity which I hinted at earlier, where we often do make judgements is no doubt in recognition of this detail-oriented approach. You can contrast these with general judgements of work such as, “Shakespeare is a great writer” which appears to be a rather boring comment which offers us very little in way of interest. As opposed to “Shakespeare is a great writer because of his clever use of metaphor within his play ‘A Midsummers Night’s Dream’ within which he uses natural phenomena to mock romantic conventions in literature and theatre”. On its own one use of metaphor does not necessarily make Shakespeare a great writer but in combination with numerous slight details it might pave the way towards a global value or judgement. In this way we can see the connection between the specific details and the global judgements we seek to help define a work of literature’s value. They are not as closely related as one might desire, but if you find many flaws in level of detail, it will affect the global judgement of the work itself and you will draw a negative judgement on a global level.
A final consideration on the concept of value is of the difference between something being valued and something being valuable. A lot of the times in discussion of the canon these two ideas get conflated. Some often think that there is nothing more to literary value than the fact that a work has been valued by certain people at a certain time. I would argue that this is not the case. If you were to list all the people who have valuable work you would find that you’ve not made a value judgement at all, rather you have made a factual statement, “these people at this time have valued works” and if that’s all you see in value then all you can offer in the realm of literary evaluation is a history of reception (a history of how works have been received over time). It is not making a judgement on what is valuable or not valuable. To be valuable rather than to have been valued is to say that something has been valued in the past justifiably. What happens over and over again is that literary works can often begin with huge positive reception but later they are completely forgotten and become dated. They were valued at a time but are not valued now because times have changed. David Hume’s insight here is the ‘test of time’. Works that we might think that move from just being valued to being valuable are works that at least have passed the ‘test of time’. They continue to be valued after any initial presentation. Hume uses the example of Homer because generation after generation go back to read The Iliad. Karl Marx suggests that literary value is grounded in the conditions of a society in particular point in its development which speaks to a works being valued but not so much its ability to withstand longevity. The concept of longevity and qualities about works that retain an intertest across time beyond the circumstances of their initial production is a key quality for works that belong in the literary canon and is central to our understanding of literary value. However, the problem persists in understanding why certain works stand the test of time. The reasons why are a set of question that eludes our understanding and often the answer points to sociological or psychological reasons, but it is similarly tempting to think that such works have qualities that captures the interest of people generation after generation outside of such reasons.
For Matthew Arnold, the founder of the discipline of English Literature in the nineteenth century: “The whole scope of [Culture and Anarchy] is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically” the concept of a literary tradition is very much an ideological one (Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, P1). Arnold suggests that culture improves and moralises us, and that the best way to ensure this is maintained is through the recommendation of culture that is adhered to. For Arnold the canon represents what fundamentally makes us civilised and respectable people in contrast with a descent into anarchy. Culture binds us together as a nation and is the essence of our common culture and values. It expresses this culture by being “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” (Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, P1). Arnolds point here seems to hint further at his argument for the canon as an ideological construct. For Arnold, if we don’t have a canon, how can we ensure that all students, future citizens, receive the same type of education?
In Contrast with Arnold I would argue that a canon can help to preserve a sense of shared cultural identity that can actually help to integrate women and ethnic minorities into a wider society as well as wider accessibility. The canon ought to reflect aesthetic value of the works independent of the political or social role it might play. I would argue that the canon of literature ought to be diverse, to show us minority authors from around the world to demonstrate the cultural diversity of modern multicultural society.
Frank Raymond Leavis on the other hand who radically changed the nature of English studies defended the great tradition of English Literature, arguing for certain works embodying greater moral and aesthetic values than others. Leavis shows a liberal humanist approach to the literary canon. For Leavis, the job of English literature, and literary scholars, is to teach and explain what is great in certain works, what in a formal sense makes some works better than others. Leavis leaves open the question however of why we should be dictated to by the market on whatever is or is not popular. It seems natural that public institutions should assert the value of “good” literature against the popularity of the mass? If literature is moral, then the job of the critic is to encourage people to read books that they consider important and of value.
Similarly, there has been a trend in recent years for thinking about literature through a political lens. Rather than judging whether a work is good or bad aesthetically instead judging a work on whether it is important or not politically. For example, a work of postcolonial literature might not be the best-written novel, but we study it regardless because of its historical and social importance, for what it teaches us about the dangers of empire. Aesthetic originality should be the only criteria for inclusion in the canon of Western literature.
It appears that for most of the length of English Literature as a discipline, the literary canon has catered to the ideologies of those institutions which propagate it. There are those who defend the canon and argue that: It can bind us together, as citizens, as readers and writers of literature and as students. This misses a fundamental point and fails to recognise its own elitism. The canon as an ideological construct of Western high-brow institutions cannot unify a multi-cultural and progressive world. With a failure to recognise true value in literary works by inclusion of multi-ethnic, women and working-class authors it leaves barren the literary field of diversity and talent. Nonetheless, the literary canon contains within it important works of literature, the first step to alleviating its conservative hegemony is a revision to include works belonging to discriminated authors and a second step is to formulate a criterion with which to evaluate literature more specifically. The value of literary works ought not to be diminished to that of an ideological hegemony but rather be qualified by those concepts raised earlier in the essay. In conclusion I believe that while the concept of a canonised body of literature is important, it needs redefining as it purports a conservative ideological construction that endangers true aesthetic and literary value.
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- Bloom, Harold. “The Anxiety of Influence”. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Second Edition. Norton & Company. London: 2001. P 1651
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- Hernstein Smith, Barbara. ‘Contingencies of Value’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 10, No. 1m (1983), 1- 35.
- Olsen, Stein Haugom. ‘The Canon and Artistic Failure’, British Journal of Aesthetics (2001) 41 (3): 261-278.
- Waugh, Patricia. “Value: Criticism, Canons, and Evaluation”. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Second Edition. Norton & Company. London: 2001, 1774-1779.
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- Willie van Peer, ‘Canon Formation: Ideology or Aesthetic Quality?’ The British Journal of Aesthetics, Volume 36, Issue 2, April 1996, Pages 97–108. Web. 7 May 2019. <https://doi.org/10.1093/bjaesthetics/36.2.97>
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